A YEAR ago, as a young freshly elected president eager to look the part, Emmanuel Macron summoned a joint sitting of both houses of parliament in the former royal palace at Versailles, and spoke loftily of grandeur and destiny. On July 9th, for his second speech to Congress, it was a more humble head of state who stepped into the chamber. “I know that I can’t do everything,” he declared, “I know that I won’t succeed in everything.” The setting was unchanged, but the tone was markedly different. A chastened president, it seems, is trying to recover his touch.
In a stiflingly hot chamber, as parliamentarians fanned their moist faces, Mr Macron sent two broad messages. First, that the president, so often accused of arrogance, is in fact listening. He spoke of voters’ anger and fear, of those who feel they are “ignored, held in contempt”, and struggle to make ends meet. Results, he warned, could take time to come through. But he would keep trying. Jupiter, in other words, may still be sitting on the republican throne, but he is not deaf to his critics, nor the concerns of ordinary folk.
His second message had less to do with style than philosophy. Mr Macron’s detractors accuse him of lacking ideology, or political clarity. He campaigned as neither on the left nor right, and invented a centrist party, which dominates the National Assembly, from nothing. Some one-time supporters on the left consider that the decisions taken in his first year—cuts to corporate and wealth taxes, a focus on curbing the budget deficit to below 3%, an increase in social charges on pensions—prove that the former Socialist minister has turned into a right-winger and “president of the rich”.
In response, and with an unspoken nod to Amartya Sen, John Rawls and Nordic welfare models, Mr Macron reiterated his core beliefs. First, that social policy should be measured not—as traditionally in France—by the level of benefits paid, but by investment in individuals, in education and training, to help “emancipate” them from poverty. Second, that he is not out to help the rich, but those who create wealth. “If we want to share out the pie,” he said, “we have to make sure that there is a pie” to share. Mr Macron promised to unveil an anti-poverty programme in September, as part of a redesign of France’s welfare state for the 21st century. The point, he stressed, was “not to enable the poor to live better, but for them to climb out of poverty.”
Mr Macron needs a boost. His approval ratings have fallen to new lows, touching 41% in July, according to Ifop, a polling group, down from 66% after his election last year. Fully 58% of voters consider that he defends French interests well abroad, but only 29% think he is close to the preoccupations of ordinary people. A series of misjudged remarks, some recorded and publicised by his own staff, have contributed to an impression of regal self-importance. He publicly scolded a teenager in a crowd, who addressed Mr Macron colloquially as “Manu”, and instructed him to say “Monsieur le Président”. News that the Elysée Palace has ordered a pricey new dinner service, and is building a swimming pool at the presidential summer fort on the Mediterranean coast, were gifts to his opponents. This week, Unsubmissive France, a far-left party whose deputies boycotted the president’s address to Congress, ran a social-media campaign against him under the hashtag #MacronMonarc. Abroad, he has failed to get anything out of Donald Trump over Iran, and very little from the EU on euro-zone reform.
That Mr Macron’s political opponents remain hostile is no surprise. A sharper critique emerged from a trio of economists who helped to write his election manifesto, among them Jean Pisani-Ferry, who co-ordinated the campaign programme. In a note to the president, leaked to Le Monde last month, they warned Mr Macron that his government came across as “indifferent” to social issues, and neglectful of the “struggle against unequal access” that had been a cornerstone of his campaign. There was a perception among his own supporters, they stressed, that the government was drifting to the right. This seemed only to be confirmed by Mr Macron’s failure recently to offer to let the Aquarius, a migrant-rescue ship, dock in France. Such an impression is particularly risky ahead of tough upcoming decisions over public spending, which have been delayed because of their political sensitivity.
The president, says one insider, “has listened” to such messages. Hence his speech in Versailles. It remains to be seen whether Mr Macron really can tame his inner monarch, not least because he believes that the French presidency should be “Jupiterian”. Yet the paradox is that he is faltering at a time when he has, in reality, clocked up some impressive successes. In the face of strikes and protests, he has pushed through a series of reforms, from the labour market to the railways. He has made nursery school compulsory from the age of three, redesigned the university-entrance process and cleaned up parliamentary expenses. Unemployment is on course to be 8.8% by the end of 2018, down from 10.1% in 2016. France has even made it to the World Cup final. Mr Macron’s touch is not what it was. But his luck may not have run out yet.